In Phillis Wheatley’s poem, To the Right Honorable William…, evokes a spirit of an American vision that undermines that of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, by reminding the Earl of Dartmouth that all should have freedom but for those who have obtained it, should not forget to thank God. Thomas Jefferson’s vision of America is almost the same as Wheatley’s with one major difference, his version doesn’t include African Americans nor for that matter, equality for women. The words expressed, written, and agreed upon by our founding fathers, regards the vital importance to being free from Britain but ignore that the word “man” can mean mankind, human and not just white male (Arnold 2) Wheatley’s version of America has a major difference with Thomas Jefferson’s vision of America, she speaks for equality of African Americans and yet as she illustrates, freedom should be thanked by acknowledging God (Lauter 1243).
In 1765 when the first echoing of dispute to British authority became obvious to Parliament, the frontier in America consisted of thirteen separate colonies. Each had a resident legislature which served on provincial soil, but which served only at the pleasure of a governor appointed by the crown. By July 2, 1776, in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress adopted the resolution, introduced by Richard Henry Lee and John Adams, which actually declared independence from Great Britain. It declared, in part, “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved”/ (Arnold 4) The Declaration, which explained why the Colonies that were now states declare their independence, after which was adopted by the Continental Congress July 4, 1776.
The leading draftsman was Thomas Jefferson, assisted by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Some of the text follows:”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness” (GA 1).
Jefferson, as others had complained that they felt King George of Britain had enslaved the people in the colonies and had forgotten their needs. When he wrote the crucial points of needing “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” they were radical ideas written on paper but aired the need to justify that their Creator (God) was the authority who approved that “men were created equal”/ Hence, the reasoning behind the need to be liberated on their own terms (Arnold 2).
Jefferson’s message, forever written in our country’s history, uses strong language acknowledging the fact that people need to be free. On the other hand, history tells another story. Jefferson’s vision of a free America is freedom for white men against their oppressor and failed to grant freedom to African Americans. Jefferson at the time argued that blacks were 3/5 humans and owned 200 slaves (7). He wasn’t impressed with Phillis Wheatley’s poetry or anything else she had to say (9). The Declaration of Independence immediately became the world’s foremost manifesto celebrating human rights and personal freedom. The fact of the matter is that America still had real slave issues to deal with (8).
Wheatley, a former slave, wrote, the 1773 publication of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects established her as a young prodigy and defied the major justification for enslavement of Africans — the European assumption of African inferiority. One of the best-known poems in the collection is dedicated To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North-America, Etc. Wheatley was encouraged by the appointment of Dartmouth, whom she had met in London. She knew that he was friends with the abolitionist Countess of Huntingdon and of the late Reverend George Whitefield, who had helped initiate the Great Awakening (VanSpanckeren 2).
The poem opens with hopefulness that under Dartmouth’s “blissful sway,” the colonies will see “Freedom’s charms unfold” and experience an end to the reign of “wanton Tyranny” that “meant t’enslave the land.” Those lines provide a subtle yet powerful segue into the next verse, in which she proposes that her “love of Freedom” and by the implication, that of the black Patriots, springs from the anguish Africans have known as slaves. In here lies vital information that she too loves freedom.
To find this freedom, her parents in Africa, she notes, “What pangs excruciating must molest, What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?”/ describe what they may have felt after she was kidnapped and brought to America. Perhaps including her experiences in the poem she reinforces that she too knows what it is like to come through the Atlantic and then be sold into slavery. She was a slave who found freedom. She has empathy for those had to make the difficult voyage to get here; fought to separate themselves from Britain because they felt enslaved and needed to be free just as the Declaration of Independence proposed (1243).
The vision Wheatley wanted for America is just like that of Jefferson except for the fact that she wanted to include African Americas. The question she provokes to undermine the author of The Declaration of Independence would be how can he argue the need for freedom from bondage of your motherland and not free the African Americans he has in his own backyard (Arnold 8). For example, when she writes, “And can I then pray others may never feel tyrannic sway?”/ She asserts to the response that there are still enslaved people around.
She wants them to obtain the same freedom America will have. She writes strong and eloquent words to the fact that she, like America, who were brought here and suffered with under the monarchy, was now free. Her journey on being brought here, although hard, still afforded her to overcome these experiences through finding God (1243). Jefferson mentions God as the Creator and permits his creations (man) to seek “liberty” (GA 1). Wheatley notes that through the celebration of finding liberty, one must thank God for it.
The spirit of liberty and the disruptions of the Revolutionary era encouraged African American men and women to choose sides. They were either Patriots or Loyalists. They were a fundamental part of what this nation would become (Arnold 10). This same spirit of liberty propelled Jefferson to write, The Declaration of Independence and Wheatley’s, To the Honourable William…, which combines one ideal for America. This principle which the country was founded upon speaks volumes about the need of man to be free from their tyrant, whoever this tyrant is. Jefferson saw it as King George of England. Wheatley saw it as some people in power in America who didn’t want African Americans free from their bondage. She used kinder words to express her opinions. In an ironic twist, Jefferson, whose final draft of The Declaration of Independence, was altered when he used very strong language referring to the Monarchy as enslaving the colonies and its people, helped establish equal rights for all minorities
. It was his words that helped minorities win the case the first of equal rights in the Supreme Court in 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson, and the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that “separate but equal” accommodations were constitutional.
(Hendrickson 2)Works CitedArnold, H. J. ed. The life of Thomas Jefferson. From Revolution to ReconstructionHTML project. http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/ (November 16, 2005)Lauter, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature: Volume A. Boston, MA:Houghton Mifflin Company. (2006)The Government Archives. http://www.archives.gov/. (November 5, 2005)Hendrickson, B. The Beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. NAACP: Voices inAmerica.http://pblmm.k12.ca.us/projects/discrimination/AfricanAmerican/cvrights.html. (November 11, 2005)VanSpanckeren, Kathryn. Democratic Origins and Revolutionary Writers, 1776-1820:Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784). An Outline of American Literature. http://www.rlc.dcccd.edu/annex/comm/english/mah8420/ColonialPage.htm. (November 2,2005)
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